"No matter where you go, there you are," multidisciplinary adventurer and rock star neurosurgeon, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), uttered in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It's one of those great, weird lines in a movie that unapologetically lacks exposition, and cult cinema fans trade them with glee. Somewhere between W. D. Richter's 1984 film, Naked Lunch, Douglas Adams, and a hallucinogenic horror-comedy is John Dies at the End. As in Buckaroo Banzai, characters navigate through a self-contained world that careens from one bizarre corner of an alternate universe to another. The film seems destined to become a new cult favorite, with a director behind one of horror cinema's most beloved movies — Phantasm's Don Coscarelli — and an author (David Wong, aka Jason Pargin) who developed a devoted following online and wrote an oddball book while working as a cubicle monkey.
Coscarelli couldn't be more perfectly suited for John Dies. He's unafraid to dive into Wong's crazed mythology and lets us experience the outlandish events that two slackers full of small-town ennui in the midst of a supernatural crisis face without holding our hands. The filmmaker has created an adaptation that honors fans of the source material and the genre audiences that were first introduced to his nightmare logic in movies like Phantasm. "I did have a little experience with Bubba Ho-Tep," Coscarelli recently told me. "That was a pretty out there movie, yet it had some sensitive, dramatic moments, so it gave me a bit of a comfort level to attack John." It also helps that leads Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes play the characters with conviction as they battle giant meat monsters and snark at talking dogs.
The filmmaker stumbled across the book by accident. "True story: I received an email from a robot on Amazon.com, and it told me if I liked the zombie book I just read, that I would like John Dies at the End," Coscarelli explained. "I read the little logline, and it was just amazingly strange. I thought, 'Well this might even make a good movie.' Plus, it had arguably the greatest title in motion picture history."
Coscarelli left a part in the film open for the writer he thinks very highly of, but Wong's duties as Cracked.com's senior editor kept him busy. Any disappointment the director felt was surely comforted by his casting award-winning actor Paul Giamatti in the part of a reporter who listens to Dave (Williamson) unravel a strange tale about his surreal time travel experiences while under the influence of a powerful drug known as "soy sauce." Giamatti happened to be a big Bubba Ho-Tep fan, and mutual friend Eli Roth encouraged Coscarelli to make contact. "I thought Eli was just exaggerating, but then I did get a hold of Paul finally, and it was true. It was exciting for me." Giamatti's production company, Touchy Feely Films, eventually got behind the project. Several well-known character actors joined them. "What's great about making these movies is you get to meet these idols of yours." A huge fan of Starship Troopers, Coscarelli was thrilled to cast Clancy Brown as the enigmatic Dr. Albert Marconi, who allies with Dave and John to defeat interdimensional beings. "He's just a great, great actor… and Doug Jones. Who would have thought he's such a great actor under all the prosthetics that Guillermo [del Toro] always covers him up with."
John Dies is comprised of old school style and contemporary tone and humor. "The thing is that it's so audacious and so out there, and yet you wanna keep it on some level a reality," the filmmaker noted. Horror fans will appreciate the use of practical effects. CG touches are balanced, sometimes subtle, and appropriate. Coscarelli described the epic meat monster in the movie as "a work of art," thanks to help from special effects legend, Robert Kurtzman. "I really went back and did it all old school, like the way we did stuff in Phantasm," Coscarelli said proudly. "The trick was, there was the potential to go insanely crazy with the digital effects, and we never would have finished the film if we did that. We were always looking for a way to do it on some sort of a simple basis, especially when the actors could have something tangible to work with."
Coscarelli's filmography is rife with questions about perceptions of reality, but he's also "drawn" to the subconscious struggles of children and teens navigating their way through the horrors of adolescence: "One of my favorite movies is that 1950's film, Invaders from Mars, where that kid loses his parents, and he's seeing monsters and Martians buried under his backyard and other freaky stuff. I guess I'm drawn to that kind of material. I'm not sure why."
Of course, Phantasm resonates with that idea most directly, which is one reason fans have been clamoring for a new film in the series for ages. "I didn't realize so many people were still interested in Phantasm. It's been 30-something years. I thought I wrapped it up with Phantasm IV back in 1998. Phantasm actors are all still looking pretty good, and there's an overwhelming demand for more of them. I have a couple of different scripts that over the years I've concocted. I've really got to dust them off and see what I can pull off."
And what about that apocalyptic Roger Avery "Phantasm 1999" script? "Roger is a brilliant writer, and he wrote this epic, hyper-violent sequel, and I just don't think anybody is going to fund this thing. Maybe we can get it out as a graphic novel or something." Several people have approached Coscarelli about a Phantasm remake, but the director feels strongly about not compromising the whole franchise for a paycheck. "I just hate to see it re-envisioned with some model actors from the CW network," he joked.
The future of Bubba Ho-Tep is "a little more opaque" for Coscarelli. Bruce Campbell declined to return for the sequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. The director is grateful for Giamatti's support on the project, and he hasn't lost hope where Campbell is concerned. "Yeah, [Campbell's] totally out. Yes, he declined, but this was several years ago, and we all have our change of hearts," he said. "I'm sure that one day, maybe, we could have a meeting of the minds on doing something. In any case, Elvis is eternal. He will outlive all of us."
As far as the future is concerned, the filmmaker is focused on trying to get John Dies successfully launched, and he's open to a sequel. "I think I would love to do more in this world, absolutely. It's always dependent on how the film performs, so it's kind of out of our hands. If we could get everybody to go watch the movie a couple of times and buy three DVDs, then yeah we'll make a sequel," he laughed.
He's also considered going back to his roots for further inspiration. I asked Coscarelli if the soundtrack, surreal dream sequences, and scene compositions in Phantasm were influenced by Italian horror cinema. "Absolutely," he said. "I have no shame in telling you that a couple of years before Phantasm, one of my favorite movie experiences was watching Suspiria in a theater. I just loved that movie. The imagery and what [Dario Argento] did with the sudden impacts. The music score is just awesome. Love all of that stuff. Now that you bring it up, it makes me think, 'Hmm, I've got to go back and do something that's a little more giallo-based.' I've been thinking about that lately."
A Phantasm II Blu-ray will be released on March 26, and Coscarelli praised the color correction and behind-the-scenes extras, including never-before-seen casting/audition tapes. He's also been keeping up with the younger generation of horror directors, citing Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die, Ti West'sThe House of the Devil, and V/H/S as some of his recent favorites.
Coscarelli would love to work with Giamatti and his producing partners again, inspired by their level of talent and willingness to take chances. "Being firmly planted in the genre/horror world, I have to find actors who have that open mind, like Paul Giamatti and Angus Scrimm, who are willing to step into the unknown." As always, Coscarelli's fans are anxiously waiting to follow him there, too.
See John Dies at the End in theaters on January 25.